“New Sobriety”, January 7, 2002

A recent interest has developed in the phenomenology of diagrams in mathematics, cognitive science, and architectural theory. Traditionally, the diagram is used as a rational tool for analysis and design in these fields, as an abstract representation of a more complex system. The architecture of Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA disregards this absoluteness and shows how subjective utilization of the diagram, as a carrier of graphic qualities, can be stunningly beautiful and Superflat.2

The burst of the bubble left Japan with an alienating postmodernist architectural landscape of heavily ornamented buildings referring to a future that never came. The ideological mindset, as far as it had been developed in post-war Japan—was left numb. Old paradigms were rendered invalid and yet, new directions had not been set.

It was during this time, in 1987, when Kazuyo Sejima—SANAA was established 1995—started her office, on the second floor of a residential building in Takanawa-dai, Tokyo. Certainly not keen on continuing the deflated postmodernist track, the office developed a sober, non-hierarchical, diagrammatic architectural vocabulary.

Although originating in the architecture of the Modern Movement, the diagram as a systematic tool in architecture was developed in the sixties by utopian architects such as Christopher Alexander and Cedric Price. The mathematician and architect, Alexander, engaged the idea of the diagram as a strict model of hierarchical rationality, employing diagrams at length to express inter-relationships. His diagrams represented rules explaining how to make more human and better architecture. Similar is Price’s architectural work, which focuses on the implementation of diagrams to develop systems rather than physical monuments. In both cases, the graphic imagery of the diagram is irrelevant, if not non-existent.

This systematic trust in diagrams as a tool for production and discourse also can be found in contemporary practices such as those of Eisenman, Koolhaas (OMA) and UN studio. These offices use diagrams as a tool for design or analysis, revealing hidden structures and relationships.

Critics often consider SANAA part of this movement. Toyo Ito describes a SANAA designed building as essentially the equivalent of the kind of spatial diagram used to describe the daily activities for which the building is intended, in abstract form.3 Certainly, the program of requirements, including the interrelations between the respective functions, as represented in a diagram, forms the basis for design. Diagrams are used as tools to generate design-solutions, just as they are by other architectural practices. However, in the work of SANAA, the diagram performs a different, more fundamental role.

Traditionally, the diagram is unlike a drawing. It is an ideal picture, a working tool. It can make connections, and organize and maintain different types of information in a set of graphic configurations. In the work of Sejima and Nishizawa, the diagram is elevated to the level of the aesthetic. After using it to fulfill its functional goal, refining the blissful formalistic quality of the diagram becomes a quest in itself. The diagram is not part of the means anymore; it has become the goal. The diagram is a formalistic framework in which the final design lies embedded.

Whereas diagrams are generally used to distinguish hierarchies, SANAA plans provide every activity, no matter how domestic or humble, a small sense of importance or ‘realness.’ The sense of occasion reserved in other practices for the dramatic or monumental spreads through the whole building, and a charming micro-intensity infuses even simple activities. SANAA has stripped the diagram from its objective, authoritarian tone and made it subjective. Does the architecture of SANAA then really originate from these utopian or rationalistic roots? Is it a continuation of an existing development in the history of architecture, or should the source of this approach been sought elsewhere?

Superflat is the title of an exhibition initiated by painter Takashi Murakami, which first took place in 2000 in Tokyo, and has received great response within the Japanese and international contemporary art scene. Superflat was coined by Murakami to describe his paintings, which deal with two-dimensional spatiality, rendered somewhere between traditional Japanese painting and modern anime. The phrase, though, has drawn attention from critics and scholars due to its connotations: “devoid of perspective and devoid of hierarchy, all existing equally and simultaneously.”

Superflat is a term perfectly apt to describe Tokyo’s current Zeitgeist; Superflatness reaches from naive J-Pop to the cute characters on your cell-phone, it’s futuristic manga, it’s in the magazines4 and everywhere around you;. Superflat is a forthright embrace of a non-ideological future of small things of desire and fascination.5 SANAA is an integral part of this culture. With a young design staff, products and advocates of this Superflat-culture, mutual inducement is obvious. The relationship works both ways, SANAA both produces and absorbs the content of Superflat culture.

Can Superflatness survive a transition to the third dimension or even exceed its success in plans and magazines? Murakami certainly tries it with his full-scale manga-figures. As if jumped directly from the magazine pages, his figures form an eccentric but strong presence in our three dimensional world. They appear as figures without history, freshly born into contemporary culture, with a bright future ahead.

More than in the arts, the third dimension is inevitable for architectural practice. Sejima and Nishizawa are very conscious of this step. After being drawn, every single building part is constructed in a carton model in the office. Initially on a small scale, models grow out to full-scale mock-ups. When taken to the site the only thing that really changes is the materialization of the model’s components.

The design for the the Glass Center at the Toledo Museum of Art in the U.S., completed in the summer of 2006, has been envisioned to be a series of different spatial experiences, based on different spatial diagrams. The extrusion of this plan forms the design of the building. The lines of the spatial diagram have materialized into either opaque, steel walls or transparent, glass ones. By keeping the thickness of the two materials identical, the representation of the plan stays diagrammatic.6

Similar ideas infuse the structural and spatial design of the Stadstheatre in Almere, the Netherlands. SANAA tries with this plan to flatten the hierarchal difference between serving and served spaces, maximizing space dedicated to the visitors’ experience. This is achieved in two ways. By designing the circulation spaces as a series of lobbies, these spaces provoke a more interesting use than ordinary corridors would and become integral part of the series of different sized spaces provided for in this building. Similar to the design in Toledo, the walls between the different spaces in the Almere plan are kept as thin as possible, and the structure is an integral part of the wall. Focusing on these two design goals enables SANAA to keep the final plan as close to the initial graphic concept.

In both plans, multiple activities are happening concurrently in different areas of the building. Components that construe the buildings’ plan are equally well studied and designed. They become small objects of desire embedded in a graphic system. The built result of the extruded diagram invokes new spatial relations and experiences, equally spread out through the building.

The classic problem of diagrams is the translation from diagram to building. This implies the role of interpretation, i.e. subjectivity. As much as this may exist for SANAA, suppressing it creates an absolute transfer between diagram and construction. This plain translation of a (subjective) graphical system makes the architecture out worldly and explains the distinction between SANAA and its’ contemporaries. “In their spaces SANAA manages to depict a remarkable diagrammed lifestyle of our modern time, as a signpost toward future society.”7